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5 ways to better lead teams when you’re hard to please

November 6, 2022
Borderless Leadership

You think of yourself as a visionary leader with strong opinions, someone who’s passionate about your product, serving your customers, and impacting the world. Yet you’ve heard feedback—through performance reviews or overheard around the water cooler—that you’re a difficult person to work for. Are your high expectations a necessary part of creating an excellent team? Or could you possibly be creating a toxic environment around you?

A recent survey reveals that 82% of workers across 10 industries say they would leave their companies due to their manager’s behavior. As executive coaches working with top leaders, we’ve identified five questions that are helpful in enabling you to look clearly at your expectations and the impact they have on your team. Understanding where you’re pushing people to be their best—and where you’re simply pushing too hard—can mean the difference between creating a high-performing team or burning out your staff that might lead them to quiet quitting or even leaving the organization.

Simplification is a powerful tool for managers to cut through the confusion and leave details to their team—as long as you don’t oversimplify. Consider the example of a CEO that Tutti coached who wanted her head of sales to let go of a long-time leader who could no longer keep pace with quarterly targets. Her simple and knee-jerk request: “Terminate him.” It was the quickest, most straightforward way to deal with the problem. However, the head of sales had to remind his CEO of the potential consequences of immediate termination: There wasn’t anyone in the pipeline to replace him; removing him would potentially decrease revenue; customers were loyal to him, which might impact retention. The head of sales pushed back and told the CEO that he needed the time to implement his transformation of the sales organization. In the end, the CEO empowered her report and respected his system’s context versus immediately firing the sales lead.

When you are facing what seems like an obvious action, slow down and consider both the first, second, and third order of consequences. The first order is the immediate action that needs to be taken (e.g., fire the sales lead). But before executing, think about the second order—how this action will affect others—and the third order of organization impact, including how long it will take. Considering all three orders of consequence before taking action lets you evaluate the entire system around a critical decision.

Achieving stretch goals in the workplace is an exciting way to keep employees motivated to stretch themselves. The Pygmalion effect states that if you have high expectations from your direct reports, they will rise to the occasion and deliver. However, if your team keeps missing the goals you set for them, you should reconsider. You think everyone should “shoot for the moon.” Still, for stretch goals to work, you must consider if your direct reports have the capacity, if resources are available and if there is intrinsic employee motivation to undertake these goals.

Take a play from Meta’s goal setting. Each team is encouraged to create “50-50” goals each half year. The purpose is that half of the goals should be realistically achievable, and the other half should be bigger stretch goals or moonshots. Shooting for a 50-50 balance of achievable goals and moonshots ensures high standards that are still achievable.

In an experiment, researchers separated people asking for donations into two groups. One group simply made the ask; in addition to making the ask, the second group also explained the impact of the donated money on the beneficiaries. The second group not only collected more money and made more calls, but were much more satisfied with their work. It wasn’t just a task anymore; it was a purpose. Research has shown that employees with a work purpose report better outcomes than their peers. If only you focus on what needs to be done, people will be less engaged, more prone to burnout and more likely to leave the organization. On the other hand, if you connect their work with how it impacts the company’s overall mission, you will find a source of motivation that goes beyond just doing a good job.

One action you can take today is to spend time with your team, reflecting on the impact the team has on the organizational goals and the company’s impact on the world. Help your team feel the purpose of their work. Simply going through this exercise has also been a source of excitement for employees.

Hard-to-please leaders often have high passion and a clear vision of where the product or organization is headed. But what happens when your team isn’t on board? Consider how you typically react when someone asks questions or challenges your thinking. Do you double down to persuade them that this is the right path? Or do you truly listen to them and consider their questions? Do you value debating dissenting opinions, or would you prefer people to always get on board with your plan?

The most outstanding leaders practice an obligation to dissent where they bring their team onboard with their vision by opening space for debate and divergent opinions. For the team to be on board, they’ll need to form their understanding of the task and internalize what needs to be done. So even if you end up following your original plan, it’s essential to understand the questions and disagreements.

It’s essential to build psychological safety so that your team feels the security to offer dissenting opinions. You could simply ask if there is a different path. When it’s time to take action, share your rationale with the broader team. If the visionary idea has shifted, give credit to those who engaged in debate to co-create the new vision. Sharing the rationale and giving credit sets up your leadership culture to value the debate process and consider alternate opinions.

A transactional relationship is about the short-term—getting the job done at all costs. The focus is on winning and getting things done without much thought to the individual’s wants and aspirations. Achieving results can be the primary focus at the cost of building relationships. This diminishes team engagement, innovation, and the results you seek. Research has shown that the best leaders drive both results and relationships. Prioritize the relationship with your direct reports and tie their goals to business results. In other words, use the connection to drive the transaction. Leaders need to care, connect, and show flexibility with the people they lead.

Prioritize meeting one on one with each of your direct reports. Ask them these questions” What does success look like for you? How can I help you to achieve your goals? Their answers will help you better understand their motivations, aspirations, and goals. Building in this time to develop the relationship adds trust, making it easier for them to follow your vision and believe in the high expectations you might be putting on the team.

Every leader has flaws, but we all have the capacity to get better. Understanding how your behavior impacts your team is key to becoming the leader who inspires, develops, and helps people grow. As a bonus, when people grow and improve, their impact on results also improves. So, don’t let your behavior get in the way of your success, your team’s success, and the execution of your combined potential.

by Luis Velasquez and Tutti Taygerly


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